July 12, 2014 by Christina Hamlett
A Conversation with Di Harris
International Buyer, Merchandiser, Seller, Customer Service, Marketer, Media and Public Relations, Point of Sale, Story teller, Corporate Branding and logo design, Social Media manager, Researcher, Visionary and Trend Innovator, In house Fine Artist, Graphic Designer, Digital Designer, Art Director, Print Liaison, Distributor, Vice-President of the Smith Street Business Association, Founding Committee member Smith Street Working Group, Community Alliance Relationship Builder, CollaboratIonist, Tourism Development, Event Planner, Consultancy and Bookkeeper.
That’s a whole lot to put on a business card but when one considers the multiplicity of colorful hats that Di Harris, CEO of Oonkas Boonkus, has worn during her lifetime – artist, entrepreneur, truth teller, fashion plate, wife, animal lover, grainy retro video actress and intrepid traveler – even a billboard would be too small.
Within the walls of her eclectic shop, visitors will find rare vintage collectible Americana, vintage mechanical toys, hand-picked unique one-off graphisized and embellished clothing, jewelry, giftware, figurines, frames, jewelry boxes, hats, accessories and original art. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
Interviewer: Christina Hamlett
Q: I can’t help but smile when I say “Oonkas Boonkas”. What’s the story behind this whimsical name of your company?
A: Oonkas Boonkas is an original but imaginative namesake for my first standard poodle. It stands for everything that’s fanciful, visionary and utopian in this world. Oonkas Boonkas was a confident, spirited character who would jump on her hind legs walking upright for blocks just to engage with a child’s free spirit.
Many years ago I did an Anthony Robbins seminar. There was an exercise where you erased the past in your mind and replaced it with a visual of your future. In my mind a scene played out. A limousine drove up and out popped “Oonkas Boonkas” as a huge success story surrounded by paparazzi and groupies. I realised somehow she was the key. Years and years later when we were to name our new Boutique business in New Orleans, we needed a name that was original, distinctive, eclectic and positive. Hence we named it Oonkas Boonkas and the name has been loved by young and old since. Oonkas Boonkas has long left us but whenever we say her name, her memory lives on.
Our second boutique in New Orleans was then named after our second Standard Poodle Zogwald who was flown in from Australia to be reunited with us and live in New Orleans at age 8. His store was called “Zogwald’s Curiousities”. Zogwald lived a rock star life as a service animal and he was able to see New York’s Times Square, chase squirrels in Central Park and ride the subway. Anywhere we went, Zog went, too.
Q: Let’s flash back in time for a bit. If/when someone asked you when you were 10 years old what you wanted to be when you grew up, what was the answer?
A: A train driver!
Q: Who would you say had the most influence on your passion for being creative?
A: I believe creativity is a talent and skill that you’re born with. For me it doesn’t take practice to draw or create; it comes naturally in everything I do. The biggest influence on my passion for being creative is my dad and mum and the exposure they gave me to the arts. My dad is an ideas man, a musician and was a director of performing arts. My mother a skilled seamstress and virtuoso artist. I was always encouraged and supported by my parents to pursue a creative career.
In more recent times, living life in the great southern melting pot of N’awlins Louisiana, soaking up the exposure to 19th century kitsch, popular culture and vintage Americana collectibles have all influenced my creativity. My private passion is to research and be inspired by the style depicted in 1920’s -1950’s movies, Hollywood Glam, Pin-up and Cheesecake movements for my fine art pieces.
Q: So when, where and how did you meet your kindred spirit soul mate?
It was love at first sight! After returning home from an around-the-world trip, I decided to join the Cirque Du Soleil Troupe of “Alegria” while it was touring Melbourne almost 12 years ago.
On orientation day I walked into Cirque’s tent city kitchen. There was a V of guys with their shirts off; all I can remember is seeing Matt right in the middle! Every time I turned up to work, Matt would be sitting there waiting for me.
After many conversations through the bleachers, coincidences and winning a jackpot at the casino with Matt, the Circus left town. Three months later I flew to the US on a whirlwind trip where Matt whisked me around 21 states and we saw the Space Shuttle Launch, rode the world’s largest roller coaster and kissed atop New York’s World Trade Centre two weeks before the fateful day it fell. After a spell of living together in New York where Matt worked with Madison Square Garden, we headed to New Orleans where our love affair for the city of artists began. Without jobs and a new apartment to pay for, we drove to Las Vegas where we married in The Candlelight Chapel on the Vegas Strip.
Q: Tell us about the journey that led to your retail wonderland.
A: A chance meeting at Cirque Du Soleil, a love affair that spanned the globe and two days after eloping to Las Vegas, a business was born. Neither of us were employed and with a new apartment to pay the note on, we braved rain, hail and shine pushing a makeshift rack down the middle of the road to The French Market New Orleans where we began selling vintaged decorated cowboy hats. As time went on and our inventory expanded, we built on our quirky inventory style by hand-picking our inventory in places such as New York, Atlanta, Houston, Los Angeles, Miami, Paris and Rome.
After 15 months of trading outside and setting up each day in the elements, our first boutique’s doors opened on Rue St Philip. Oonkas Boonkas continued to go from strength to strength only to suffer three years later a huge set back in the summer of 2005.
Q: So here’s a question that’s often asked by people who say, “I want to have a shop someday and sell a lot of cool stuff.” Did you start out with a list of merchandise and then figure out how to acquire it? Did you start with just a few items and gradually expand? Or did you get everything at once? Inquiring minds want to know.
A: We began with handmade, decorated and assembled accessories. At first we sold our coloured, decorated and vintaged coloured cowboy hats and made handcrafted, plaited, braid and beaded belts. For our character pieces we would on a Sunday scour secondhand dealers buying one or two vintage collectible pieces to build on our collection. As time went on and money was reinvested into stock, our inventory began to expand to fashion one-off clothing, accessories such as hats, handbags and crystallised hair barrets as we hit the fashion/gift districts and trade shows of New York, Miami, Atlanta, Houston, LA, Rome, Paris and Melbourne. Our mission was to be unique and sell stock that had stand-out design, colour and were one of a kind.
In our first boutique the only object that was inside was a live bright blue green dragonfly in the window. The dragonfly is generally associated with the symbolic meaning of transformation, joy and lightness of being. Thus started our love affair with dragonflies; ever since we have been selling dragonflies and butterflies throughout our inventory. We wanted to tell retail stories and recreate the mementos and memories that our grandmothers had in their homes when we were growing up. Enter the vintage character piece collection that we had built-up over the previous 15 months so we could recreate the magic of childhood memories for adults to reclaim. Themes such as Tiki, Hula, Pin-up girl, Hollywood, Mermaid, Fairy, Clown, Mechanical Monkeys, Paris, Poodles, Flamenco would be thematically displayed.
Q: There’s no question that life-as-we-know-it can change in a heartbeat. What were the circumstances that forced you to adapt –and quickly – to an unexpected curveball?
A: Overnight our lives changed forever. When Hurricane Katrina rolled into town and the city filled like a fish bowl, life as we knew would never be the same again. Hurricanes Katrina and Rita hit New Orleans and wiped out our business and our community. All of the city’s infrastructures were down. Most of the population was displaced throughout North America. It would be the equivalent of 80% of Melbourne being underwater to the roof for two weeks as it became the biggest disaster in US history. There is quite the story in having fled three hurricanes in a row and ending up in New York in the middle of winter with just the summer clothes and flip-flops we had evacuated New Orleans with three months before.
Having tried to survive on our own until November, we now needed help. Being turned away by the Red Cross Aid Agency – as it was a long weekend – I remember not knowing where we were going to sleep that night. Sitting in a New York diner trying to come up with a plan, I remember receiving a call from actor Nicholas Cage’s personal assistant saying he would endorse a book that was about preserving the courtyards of the French Quarter called Secret Gardens of the Vieux Carre. I was working remotely to help the author on this book whilst trying to survive. I pinched myself. That evening I flew to Florida with Zogwald to continue work on preserving the historical buildings of the French Quarter.
Eventually when we returned to New Orleans in November (on the eve of my birthday), the city was still a grey, silty mess. Rotting refrigerators in the street. A mountain of rubbish pulled out of the lake front houses was 10 stories high in the middle of the road. It would be another five months before we could think about reopening the shop that had been so damaged by a collapsed ceiling and black mold spreading throughout. I remember vividly the day we secured a new location for our boutique and left a deposit cheque with our new landlord, only to discover that money which came from the first payment of our disaster unemployment assistance had been removed from our account as a fine of $550 from Merchant Services for not trading since Katrina. We didn’t have any money to eat and here they were making our landlord’s cheque bounce.
It wasn’t just the single loss of a home or a business but the loss of lives and a whole community. You couldn’t grieve for your own losses; it was much greater than that. Recovery and revitalisation were achieved through the help, compassion and generosity of outside people who volunteered. People operated on a dysfunctional level, infrastructures were down and never was the building and mending of relationships including helping each other more important than at this time. When I see the vision of New Orleans underwater to this day, it’s hard to fathom how we came back from that. We shared experiences both on highs and lows that will bond us together forever. The soul and spirit of New Orleans is in the people that live there. Until you go through a natural disaster of such high proportions, you couldn’t possibly understand. Ordinary people living extraordinary lives. It left us with a precious gift to make the most of life and to “live in the moment.”
Everything for so long was characterised as either Pre-Katrina or Post Katrina. Nothing was Katrina identity-free. In the beginning it was a curse because whenever we talked about it, you couldn’t help but relive the loss and devastation but as the years rolled by it gave us a position of strength and personal growth. What’s the worst that can happen? You lose everything! Then pick yourself up by your bootstraps and rebuild. When you help yourself, others step forward to lend you a hand.
We were actively involved in rebuilding business, liaison with city officials to improve our quality of life, attending community people power Town Hall meetings to assist the New Orleans recovery and revitalisation. I became an ambassador and voice for correcting the misconceptions people had about what really happened during Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath to the influx of volunteers and returning tourism.
Ten months later on Rue Chartres, Oonkas Boonkas II was born. Another nine months later on Rue Royal, Zogwald’s Curiousities doors opened.
After five years of recovery my friend and I decided to revisit and rediscover New Orleans’ beauty and its characters. Within a six-block radius, we produced some fun videos called “TJ and Di Adventures Vieux Carre Confidential.”
Q: What’s it like becoming a sole proprietor of a retail business for the first time living in a foreign country?
A: It’s challenging. There are no safety nets. Starting from scratch, no one is there to teach you the ropes but yourself. Forget the ways and belief systems you were raised on; it’s all out the window. Business regulation, accounting, taxes, police, medical and customs are all different. You soon find out what you’re made of, who you are and what you stand for, what you’re good at and not so good at. You have come in from the outside so relationship and network building is most important. I felt isolated in the beginning not knowing many people but when you open your business that changes and the world lands at your feet. In an international city, once established, you’re likely to meet the most fascinating of people with stories to tell and you literally get to mix with all walks of life from the rich and famous to the local psychics, fortune tellers, voodoo priestesses, witches, musicians, artists.
New Orleans is a great little community of diehard characters that know each other but it has the added vibrance of filling up each week with massive international and national tourism. Always a brass band, a second line parade or street party going on even at 3 a.m., a drop of your hat there’s always something to join into. When you live in another country and run a business, your customers become your family. When Hurricane Katrina hit, we were overwhelmed with customers offering us a place to live and offers of financial support.
Q: How are you adapting to the change in retail trends, especially in such an uncertain global economy?
A: We knew it was coming. Did we underestimate its effect on our retail businesses? Absolutely! The full effects are still unfolding and not really being talked about. The psyche of the average customer has changed. The media has a lot to do with affecting people’s perceptions. For instance, our recent Australian budget release turned the streets into a ghost town.
I believe the mass production out of Asia and the manipulation of big business on our average customer has made for a sometimes hit and miss uncertain climate. What I see is a lack of confidence, ability and sense to tell what’s real, authentic and good quality over mass-produced lines that are cheap and saturating the market. The expectations of customers have blurred. Customers seem skeptical.
How do we adapt? It’s good question. It’s a work in progress and I believe we have to lower our overheads in order to reinvent on a constant basis.
Q: Why is being community-minded so important in business and what are some of the things you’re doing to embrace that philosophy and put it into active practice?
A: I began as one and now stand with a whole network of like-mind supporters.
In my business I faced obstacles and reached out to build key relationships with people who could help me overcome them and I now champion the process. I was told many times it couldn’t be done, it’s been like this for 40 years, and you can’t change it.
Building key relationships with the diverse people living and working in our community has enabled me to turn significant adverse situations around to heal and change lives facilitating a brighter future for others. It has also enriched my day to day life. Whilst relocating my retail business back to Australia, I was confronted with drug and alcohol anti-social behaviour that threatened personal and business safety. For eight months we experienced daily disruption of my business and it de-stabilised our life. I infused our shopping strip with a renewed sense of caring and purpose in order to turn it around to be a safer and a more culturally connected community. For the first time in 40 years, the crime rate which had been escalating was now reducing by 331/2% in one year. Instead of police being called to attend incidents 10 times a day, we are now lucky to see them once in three weeks.
How did I do it? Unable to trade safely, I undertook every minute of every day 7 days a week monitoring and calling police and canvassing our local MP, Victoria Police, Crime Prevention groups, Salvation Army, City of Yarra and other government entities to make our streets safer and working toward hopeful solutions for our future economy and its indigenous culture. An inclusive bigger picture scenario solution was what it required. Fostering hope and equipped with a determination to make positive change happen on Smith Street, I was able to inspire and bring people together in a common cause. My timing was spot-on. I became a catalyst for change that had a big‑flow-on effect. Now the community plays a huge role in my life around everything I do personally and for business.
Q: What are your strongest attributes and how have they helped your business grow?
A: My strongest attributes are creativity, vision, communication, relationship building, empathy, determination and lack of fear. I don’t take no for an answer and my creativity allows for me to think outside the box to re-invent a situation and get the ball rolling on new ideas. If you stand still in business and don’t look for new ways to improve business, you die. I often say if I didn’t have my creativity, how would I survive? I am forever designing collateral to communicate my business ideas to the public and give them a piece of my havana to take home with them. Creativity is our heartbeat and the source of our business image. It’s in the choice of product we display, how our walls are decorated and the look of our branding.Vision is essential to be able to predict and present innovative trends.
Personal communication and empathy can help build your customer base. When the heat is on and there seems no immediate answer to obstacles, you must have determination and a lack of fear to go where most people won’t go before you to make a difference. There is nothing quite like working with the public every day. You name it, I’ve heard it, seen it or been asked it. As a retail business owner, you wear many hats and forming relationships is what drives your business, feeds your business and is the reason why customers return.
Q: What would people be the most surprised to learn about you?
A: That I am not just a business owner and sales person but that I can actually draw like the masters! When shown my drawings, observers automatically say “What?Uou did that? No really?” I am a gypsy at heart with a business brain. Even though I am nice and petite, I can be very strong and assertive. Having “lived in the moment” and had many adventures, some of them close calls, there is more than meets the eye behind Di Harris.
Q: Of all the hats you wear as an entrepreneur, which one is the most fun to put on every morning? And the least fun?
A:My most fun hat to put on is my social hat. Without a doubt, bookkeeping is my least fun.
Q: How are you finding the impact of the “Internet” age on your business and how has that affected your bottom line?
A: Our business role and focus has changed so much. We didn’t take our computer to work in New Orleans. Now it takes up most of the day posting and promoting on social media answering emails etc. We have become time poor and slaves to the Internet as it has radically changed the face of business in a relatively short time. Adapt or die.
The Internet has opened the world at our feet and the online buying phenomenon has meant less people are coming out to shop. It’s almost making shops obsolete.People aren’t the same. People aren’t out and about as much. It’s hard to give good service or even have a meaningful conversation if customers won’t elaborate why they are in store, are on their phones or often walking in with their headphones on.
There’s no doubt that the Internet has changed the customers’ expectation and has meant an uncertain and cautious approach to spending. It has blurred the customers’ expectation in relation to mass-produced versus handmade one-offs. They like the unique good quality but only want to pay the mass-produced versions price. Most of the time customers act like they cannot tell the difference so they can drive the price down when there is a distinct comparison. Commercial retail spaces come with a high overhead but mostly people are using them for idea shopping only. They obtain the original idea from the trader but then they go online to try and source the product. The respect of an original idea is now generally not being recognised and often people pull out their phone and start taking photos of artists’ intellectual property without obtaining permission.
The idea of beauty and style in retail needs to have a comeback.
They say you have to have a webpage and yet we have had three attempts to do this. It’s like the web developers we have engaged do not listen to the brief and say they can write code but instead dish up a non-flexible template in black and white which does not go with our aesthetic at all. There are a lot of expensive pitfalls out there to do with website design and a lot of technology savvy web developers that do not have graphic design experience. A lot of bluff and money oriented sales pitch goes on so much so that instead I have begun to design my own website to fit my business. I figure with my graphic design experience I can figure the technology side out.
Q: Where do you see Oonkas Boonkas progressing in the future?
A: We see Oonkas Boonkas going global more so than local. Retailing and specialist global buying leading to selling on our E-Commerce site to our global audience online. Strong recognition both locally and internationally as trend setters bringing creative solutions to gift giving with timeless style solutions that outlast faddy trends.
We intend to be our own Design company, providing creative solutions for distinctive gift giving products, fashion styling, home interior decorating, homeware products and stylist design advice.
We want to produce unique and decorative items that have never been available before to decorate homes. We will establish a product development line producing and capturing nostalgic imagery, both for children and adults, in both luxury and point of sale brands, which will be known for their quality and uniqueness. In producing and manufacturing our own quirky line of products, we will make available products that originally were only available to the rich and famous overseas by making rare sought after design functional, affordable and accessible to the general public.
Oonkas Boonkas will endeavour to employ artisans and craftsman to produce decor for the home and higher-end, limited edition runs with a retail sales team and reps to sell and distribute this product. We will also market to performers and the entertainment industry’s niche market with our embellished jean line, one-of-a-kind clothing and future burlesque and New Orleans section, as well as have rare iconic vintage collectible prop pieces available for hire to feature in stage and screen projects..
We will also be known for our customer event nights, encourage community business involvement as part of their business mission and run workshops to boost women’s self-confidence with fashion by showing them how to add colour to their wardrobes and be more adventurous with their dressing – a strategy which we guarantee will drop 10 years from their age!
Q: Where can readers learn more about you?
A: Readers can see us on online including Facebook Oonkas Boonkas, Twitter, and Instagram.
Stay tuned for our website http://www.oonkasboonkas.com